Column: 8 Lessons from the global PR revolution

Even as economic power has become increasingly concentrated in large corporations, communication power has become more diffuse. Most of us now carry global publishing power in our pockets, and we are connected to one another like never before. This combination of access and interconnection gives us the ability to make or break reputations and brands. […]

Even as economic power has become increasingly concentrated in large corporations, communication power has become more diffuse. Most of us now carry global publishing power in our pockets, and we are connected to one another like never before. This combination of access and interconnection gives us the ability to make or break reputations and brands.

For the last two years, I’ve had a unique vantage point on this tumultuous change, as chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, the confederation of the world’s PR and communications professional associations.

Professional business communicators are on the front lines of the communications revolution. The Global Alliance represents 160,000 practitioners and academics around the globe and I’ve been able to meet thousands of communicators on every continent, from at least 30 different countries and many different cultures. Based on that experience, I can share a few insights about how communication is changing the world of business — and how business communication itself must change as a consequence.

1. The balance of power has changed between organizations and their audiences

Whether we act as citizens, consumers, investors, activists or employees, we now have the power to shape corporate reputations; we can build up governments or bring them down; we can start social movements in a moment and spread truth or lies, hope or fear, peace or violence, clarity or ambiguity. The Arab Spring is the most prominent of many examples. This power has transformed our expectations of business, and therefore requires organizations to engage their audiences in different ways.

2. As expectations change, businesses need a new kind of legitimacy

The legitimacy of a corporation does not come only from its shareholders, and the legitimacy of a government does not come only from an election result. Legitimacy flows from ongoing accountability to all stakeholders, and from public consensus about the moral right of a party in power to govern or a business’s license to operate. Traditionally, this accountability flowed through channels such as shareholder meetings, legislatures and the media. Now, however, the public’s new communication power is changing the public’s expectations. Organizations therefore need a new kind of legitimacy – one earned through ongoing and transparent communication. While ignoring media or stakeholders can sometimes yield short-term safety, in the long run such evasion enhances organizational risk — particularly in an age when intangibles such as reputation comprise the bulk of a typical company’s market value.

3. In business communication, the new imperative is influence

As an MBA grad and longtime lecturer at Queen’s and other Canadian business schools, I’ve seen how managers are trained to value control. The great paradox of 21st-century communication is that while it’s never been more important to control what we say, it’s never been more important to accept that we cannot control what others say about us – even when they work for us. If we surrender some control – while being disciplined about what we say and clear about the values for which we stand – we can gain something that’s arguably far more useful, and that is influence.

4. Public relations isn’t just about what you say; it’s about what you do

Arthur Page, an American PR-industry pioneer, said: “Public perception of an organization is determined 90 per cent by what it does and 10 per cent by what it says.” This is more true today than ever before.

Old-school managers still view public relations as a one-way process of communication: the speaker trying to reach an audience. Today’s smart managers understand that PR is about an ongoing, often chaotic, multilateral conversation in which their goals are to gain influence, nurture relationships, and build social capital to the mutual benefit of the business and all its stakeholders. Success demands going beyond words, and being genuinely open to changing what the organization actually does. This is why modern public relations is less driven by the marketing and sales function, and more by a CEO’s strategic direction that fosters authentic engagement and builds a strong reputation and brand.

5. Listening is everyone’s job – not just the PR department’s

Too many companies worry obsessively about what their employees might be doing wrong on social networks, rather than helping them do things that are right for the organization. In a networked society, every employee is a company communicator at some level. Smart organizations set guidelines that encourage employees to detect both opportunities and threats, while respecting the organization’s official communication channels. This is not easy to do. Success demands communicating proactively to employees so that they can understand the context behind organizational decisions.

6. The media mix has changed: use it to help, before you sell

The advent of social networking and ever-more sophisticated data is enabling businesses to forge one-on-one relationships with customers. It’s also strengthened a key tool in the public relations arsenal: ‘owned media’ – i.e., content generated by the business as a supplement to earned and paid media advertising. What kind of content should you create? The smartest businesses are using these tools to help potential customers first — with no strings attached — in order to pave the way for a future sale.

7. Responsibility matters, but sustainability matters more

Many North American businesses have embraced the idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR) – the notion that organizations have a duty to ‘give back’ to society. In many countries — Brazil being a great example — business communicators focus more on sustainability, a concept that suggests mutual benefit and shared value for the company and its stakeholders.

The problem is that, for many organizations, CSR and sustainability remain peripheral or ‘feel-good’ activities driven by factors such as regulation or social pressure, rather than an imperative embedded in an organization’s DNA and its strategy. Today, there’s a compelling opportunity to shift executive thinking to business-building terrain; using sustainability to strengthen a company’s relationships with its stakeholders, thus influencing its reputation and its value.

8. The single best way to engage an audience is through co-creation

In many countries I have visited, nationhood has been achieved through either conquest or compromise; Canada is an example of the latter. There is, however, a third way: co-creation. In creating its new constitution in the 1990s, South Africa may be the world’s greatest example of the value of creating content together. The same lesson applies to an individual business’s relationships with its stakeholders. Whether you’re dealing with one influential stakeholder or seek to influence all stakeholders, there’s no better way to get everyone on the same side than through co-creation.

The world feels a little bit broken these days, and there’s never been a greater need for communication to help bring about economic recovery, political freedom, technological advancement and social justice. According to legend, the Greek mathematician Archimedes once said: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

Today, communication can be that lever. And on a fulcrum of stability that comes from redesigning business communication for a new era, intelligent, ethical two-way communication truly can move the world.

Daniel Tisch is president and CEO of Toronto-based Argyle Communications, one of Canada’s largest public relations firms, which has been in business for more than 30 years. Previously, he held various senior roles in the federal government, including serving as Senior Policy Advisor to Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and a member of the Canadian delegation to the G7 Economic Summit. Follow him on Twitter (@DanTisch) or on his blog.

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